Sonoma Ranch Elementary's Sugar and Spice Coffee Shop

Logan Brandon, left, and Jayden Rucker add milk to some of their coffee orders at Sonoma Ranch Elementary's Sugar and Spice Coffee Shop.

Second-grader Calvin Rogers was at his station, following a check list – write teacher name on label, put label on coffee cup, get the matching K-cup from the bin and then pass the order form and cup to the next person.

It was Wednesday morning at Sonoma Ranch Elementary’s Sugar and Spice Coffee Shop, where Calvin and 10 fellow students with autism were brewing and delivering coffee, decaf coffee, tea and hot chocolate to the school’s teachers and staff.

“We have 40 students that play a role in the coffee shop,” said Tasha Cerimeli, the school’s speech language pathologist, who came up with the concept three years ago. 

“The whole purpose of the program is to help them with executive functioning skills. We work a lot on social skills and to follow direction independently.”

The coffee shop derived its name from Gilbert Public Schools district’s S.P.I.C.E. program - Social, Pragmatics, Independence, Communication, and Emotional Regulation ­– for students with autism spectrum and related disorders.  

Sonoma Ranch has seven low- and high-functioning autism classrooms, the most of any campus in the district. There are 75 students with autism while most other district schools have about 30, according to Cerimeli.

“Our principal here fought to have autism on campus,” she explained. “He used to be a special-education teacher.”

Calvin has been with Sugar and Spice since kindergarten and has got to the point where he can pretty much man each work station independently. 

He’s on the high-functioning end of the autism scale with some social deficits in that he doesn’t look people in the eye and doesn’t know how to mange a conversation topic, Cerimeli said.

“He only talks about what he wants to talk about, which is Star-Wars related,” she added.

Although Calvin’s task that morning was to label the cups, the 8-year-old said he likes the job of putting in the sugar and cream into the coffee better. For most of the participants like Calvin, the coffee shop is the highlight of their school day.

“I like learning stuff,” he said. “And I get awards.”

At the end of the hour-long “shift,” two students are awarded with an Employee of the Week certificates.

While Calvin is an old hand at the shop, it was Carter Ott’s first year.

 “I love it,” the second-grader said as he jumped up and down with excitement. His job for the day was to put the cream and sugar into the coffee, stir it and then put a cap on the cup.

 A paraprofessional has to guide him through the process.

The school’s band room is converted every Wednesday morning into the coffee shop with each student assigned to a station. That morning 11 boys worked in a production line, filling 22 orders from teachers and staff.

 Most of the participants are boys given they are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.

Besides the paraprofessionals or teacher aides, a group of general education students also participate in the coffee shop, helping their autistic peers stay on track. 

The autistic students are rotated each week so everyone has the chance to participate and their jobs are switched every three to four weeks so they are learning something new.

Cerimeli arrives early each Wednesday to pull out the tables and put out the Keurigs, bottles of coffee syrup, check lists that include pictures, bins of color-coded K-cups and labels at each station with the student’s name. 

The students set up the rest, getting the coffee cups, lids and stirrers from a cabinet.

“All the stations are visual so students can be independent,” Cerimeli explained. “Everything is visually labeled.”

Each year of the program, Cerimeli tries something different. This year’s focus is to be more visual. She explained when she was sick last school year, the students couldn’t perform their duties.

Cerimeli’s goal for the students is that they eventually set up the shop by themselves.

Cerimeli, who’s in her eighth year at the school, carefully documents the students’ progress, how well they do at each goal.

“I’ve seen how independence has blossomed,” she said.

Calvin is a prime example.

“At first he couldn’t write a teacher’s name or get a K-cup,” Cerimeli said. “He needed assistance to remind him what cup to get and break down each step.

“Now, he’s independent, he sets up his station, write a teacher’s name independently and chat with the boys.”

She said her goal for Calvin is that one day he will be able to navigate the halls and deliver a cart of beverages by himself without paraprofessional support.

“I have a couple of students headed there next year,” she said.  

Teachers and staff at the school get an order form in their mailbox each Thursday, which they check what beverage they want and the accompanying condiments.

 The students go the classrooms each Friday morning to collect the forms. 

The teachers make it a point to engage with the students and a lot don’t drink coffee but order it for the sake of knowing it benefits the kids, Cerimeli said.

The beverages cost $1 each and most of the supplies like the K-cups are donated by parents. Proceeds go back into shop and some are used for an end-of-the-year event like a pizza party.

After the beverages are made, Calvin and Hayden Daniels, who turns 8 this Monday, are chosen to make the deliveries, escorted by paraprofessionals and a couple of general-education students. 

First stop is the front office, where Calvin delivers to Lori Schuermann, an administrative assistant, and asks if she has her punch card. Each recipient has the opportunity to earn a free beverage after purchasing four.

 Schuermann said she has seen students make strives such as one student who went from standing silently next to another student during the deliveries to saying “please” and “thank you.”  As for Calvin, he’s become more “interpersonal,” she said.

“He’s looking us in the eyes and asking us questions and waiting for the answers,” she said.

Cerimeli said two to three other district schools are trying to pilot the concept.

“We wanted to bring about this awareness and bring students with autism spectrum disorders out of their self-contained classrooms,” she said. “Hopefully, this will take off at other campuses.”